Editor’s note: Bill of Fare is a feature on St. Paul dining that runs on the first and third Thursday of each month. Capitol Report is building an online dining guide, which is available here.
One of the best ways to experience different cultures is through food. It’s easy to do that with a visit to Little Mekong, a five-block district between Mackubin and Galtier streets on St. Paul’s University Avenue.
Named for the Mekong River, which flows from China into Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, Little Mekong offers the opportunity to experience a variety of Southeast Asian restaurants and businesses.
A great place to start is one of the area’s Vietnamese establishments where you can dig into noodle salads, a steamy bowl of pho or fresh bahn mi sandwiches.
Vietnamese immigrants, who were sponsored by church groups and other charitable organizations, began arriving in Minnesota in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. Many started out in the University Avenue area because it was relatively inexpensive.
Trami Nguyen’s grandparents moved to North St. Paul in 1975 and started a restaurant in St. Paul. Her parents opened Mai Village in 1990. In 2003, they moved into their current location at 394 University Ave., a 300-seat space known for its exquisite décor including a pagoda, tables, chairs and booths made from wood hand-carved in Vietnam. “My parents wanted to give the feel of an outdoor restaurant in Vietnam when you walk in,” said Nguyen who manages the restaurant.
In the kitchen, the emphasis is on authenticity. Flavors are developed with traditional ingredients like fish sauce, lemon grass and garlic.
Nguyen suggests diners who want a unique experience try the Seven Courses of Beef. “It’s one of our signature dishes, a special meal served in Vietnam.” She recommends getting a group together and making an evening out of it. The elaborate meal takes a couple of hours. The courses include salad, soup, fondue, beef-stuffed grape leaves, and grilled meat you cook yourself on a griddle at the table. It comes with rice paper, carrots, cucumbers and mint leaves to make your own spring rolls.
Pho, the iconic noodle soup, is king at Trieu Chau, a sunny, friendly café at 500 University Ave. W., where it’s easy to feel like family. There is soul-satisfying chicken pho, chocked full of chicken, vegetables and rice. For the special pho, owner Minh Nguyen says they “throw the whole kitchen” into the broth including beef flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, meat balls and rice noodles. It’s topped with green onions and cilantro and accompanied by a plate of bean sprouts, lime and basil to add as you wish.
Another favorite is the combination noodle salad with grilled pork, pork meatballs and egg roll. Nguyen suggests adventurous diners try the curry tofu or hot and spicy mock duck with potatoes. But, he says, you don’t need to have exotic tastes to enjoy his restaurant. “We don’t try to be cute or fancy; we get you with our food.”
394 University Ave. W., St. Paul
Two most popular dishes: Hot and spicy chicken, noodle salads
Cost range: $10 to $14
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 12-8 p.m.
Delivery service: No
Closest Green Line station: Western
500 University Ave. W., St. Paul
Two most popular dishes: Hot and spicy chicken, chicken pho
Cost range: $7.25- $10.95
Hours: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m., closed Tuesday.
Delivery service: No
Closest Green Line station: Western or Dale